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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5

Food security: All our eggs in few baskets? 

The recent salmonella scare in the United States, which resulted in 500 million eggs being recalled, underscores the way in which the U.S. food system, which values “free trade,” comparative advantage and idolizes efficiency and specialization, may not be the safest model to be trusted with our daily breakfast. In a recent Food and Water Watch statement, Assistant Director Patty Lovera states that “[t]his egg recall is not a fluke. It’s just the latest example of how the consolidation of food production puts consumers at risk…”

Iowa State University’s Agriculture Marketing Resource Center reports that in 1987, 2,500 producers kept at least 75,000 laying hens compared to today’s 205 producers who supply 95 percent of the eggs eaten in the United States. In business terms this is a remarkable model of efficiency, but the extreme consolidation that has taken place in the egg industry over the past 23 years had led to a startling statistic. Five states (Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California) produce half of U.S. eggs. When almost all our eggs come from one of five baskets, it is only a matter of time before something goes wrong that has a negative impact on much of the country.

As we envision creating vibrant, resilient communities in an age faced with climate change and peak oil, we at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns have worked closely with the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis. With coalition partners we are pushing for policy changes that support locally grown food systems that support food sovereignty – the right of peoples and communities to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fishery systems, and to choose systems that are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.

In the recent U.S. salmonella outbreak, though the eggs that were contaminated came from one source, they were distributed under a variety of labels, giving consumers the illusion that they were choosing their own brand of eggs. The movement for food sovereignty is rejecting this notion of false choice given to us by corporately organized food systems in favor of having a real choice about what to eat, as well as how and where it is produced. This is a movement focused on “exercising actual democracy” re-democratizing, diversifying and decentralizing the food system. As Elanor Starmer, an organizer for Food and Water Watch in California says, “We can’t buy our way out of the problem if we don’t have any choice about what we buy.”

Food recalls are not new to the United States. In 2009 a peanut recall affected nearly 4,000 products. In 2008, 143 million pounds of ground beef were recalled, including some that had been distributed through the National School Lunch Program. And in 2006, E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach that had sickened hundreds of people in 26 states was recalled. The best way to avoid outbreaks of the current egg recall magnitude is to encourage smaller and regionally dispersed production of our eggs, and other foods.

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